Inauguration-Watching, in a Place of Their Own
Folks Who Can't or Won't Go Downtown Find Variety of Nontraditional Venues

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Margaret Simmons, 71, plans to spend the night before the inauguration sleeping in a church, bundled in a pew, so she will get the view she wants most of the ceremony -- on a state-of-the-art projection screen in the sanctuary.

Like many who don't want to brave the crowds and cold downtown on Inauguration Day, but also don't want to stay home and watch it alone, Simmons has embraced a middle ground. She plans to attend a viewing party at Friendship Baptist Church in Southwest Washington. The sleepover, she said, could be the only way to guarantee she'll make it from her home in Prince George's County and not miss the communal celebration when Barack Obama is sworn in as president.

"This is not a time to be alone," Simmons, a widow, said. Commemorating the day with others, she added, will "make me feel a part of it."

The desire to spend the inauguration among a crowd, just not among millions, is spurring places across the region to open their doors as an alternative to the expected pandemonium of the Mall and the official parade route. In Alexandria, business and community leaders joined to rent a 13-by-17-foot Jumbotron to show the event live in Market Square. Rockville is opening its City Council chambers, and pulling out its large projection screen, for a public showing of the ceremony.

Then there are the many businesses, political groups and religious organizations hosting viewing parties for free or a small charge. DC for Obama is giving one at Station 9 restaurant on U Street NW. The Washington Ethical Society will have one in the Shepherd Park neighborhood. Another, at the Carolina Kitchen Bar and Grill in Hyattsville, is being sponsored by the Hip Hop Caucus, The Source magazine and Dave & Ray Entertainment.

"Avoid the cold and the crowds in downtown DC," reads an announcement on the Web site of the American Film Institute's theater in Silver Spring. "Watch the historic inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, broadcast LIVE on the big AFI Silver screen!"

The theater, with a 400-person capacity, will start offering tickets to the public at 1 p.m. Monday. They are free but limited to four per person.

"It's a public service," said Murray Horwitz, deputy director of the theater, explaining the decision to open the 41-foot-wide screen to the public. "First, it's a time of coming together as Americans, and watching it in a theater allows people to do that. Second, it will relieve some of the pressure on downtown D.C."

From 1.5 to 3 million people or more are expected to descend on the Mall and surrounding area for the Jan. 20 ceremony. Roads are expected to be clogged and Metro stations packed.

The possibility of spending the day in a theater sounds pretty good to Paula Markofsky.

"That's exactly what I'm looking for," the 65-year-old Montgomery County woman said this week after having spent days searching for a place, any place, where her family could find a seat without sacrificing a community atmosphere.

If it were not for the two canes she needs to walk, the result of having polio as a child, Markofsky said she would be in the mix of the inauguration mayhem.

"In a heartbeat," she said. "I'm not one to sit at home quietly and watch it on my little television. I want to be with other people and share in the enthusiasm and the excitement."

That's all a group of women in Calvert County wanted when, shortly after Obama's election, they started wondering how they would commemorate his inauguration. The county seat, Prince Frederick, is about 35 miles southeast of the District.

"We're not on anybody's A list," said Rhonda Crawley, 55, of Prince Frederick. "We're just regular folks. We're just the regular people who supported Barack Obama from the beginning."

Under the sponsorship of the local Democratic Club, she and others decided to throw their own party at the county fairgrounds, a gala on the evening of Jan. 20 that at $40 a head is designed to be affordable for a rural area that is slowly suburbanizing. There will be jazz bands, food and two large-screen televisions tuned to the official balls in the city, "so our guests will be able to see what's going on in D.C. and feel like we're really there when the Obamas do their first dance," Crawley said.

Crawley and the other women also plan to watch on those televisions as Obama takes the oath of office earlier in the day.

"This is our kicking off of this change that he is talking about," Crawley said. "This is going to be a situation where people say, 'Where were you?' It's like, 'Where were you when the first man walked on the moon?' 'Where were you when Nelson Mandela was let out of jail?' I wanted to be around people who felt the same way as I did, who are jubilant, who are hopeful."

At Friendship Baptist, the Rev. J. Michael Little said his motivation for opening the doors to an inauguration viewing came down to the concern that too many people without the ability or means to get downtown would be left out.

"I want to make sure that regular folks celebrate," Little said. "I don't want it to be only for people with means."

The church, which is 134 years old, plans to offer a continental breakfast, a southern soul-food lunch and a bit of prayer for the 44th president. Little said he doesn't know if "150 or 1,500" people are going to show, but with many of the congregants older than 70, he said he has no doubt that the demand is there.

"They were saying, 'Just kind of staying in for an event of this magnitude, it just doesn't feel right. It feels like we should be doing something,' " Little said.

Sheila Smith, 53, who wouldn't be able to go downtown because she has suffered two heart attacks, lives right across the street from the church. She said she plans to show up with six or seven senior citizens, all of them decked out in Obama gear.

"We have our hats. We have our T-shirts. We have our buttons," Smith said. "We're ready."

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